Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Italy

The Italians disagree about everything. They disagree about how big - or small - Italy should be.

They disagree about who should run the country. The Italian people have had to put up with some 62 governments since 1945 - worth checking in case this has changed as I write. They've had to suffer 39 prime ministers since 1945. Again, worth checking if that's changed too.

They disagree about which is the best football team and who should play for it. They disagree about how much they pay to should bribe the referee.

They disagree about whether a Ferrari is better than a Lamborghini is better than a Maserati. (I've owned two of the three, the former and the latter, and go with the Maserati. Or the Ferrari.)

They disagree on their favourite variety of pasta. And variety is the operative word. Pasta comes in 158 shapes. Or is it 159? They include Scialatelli of Scilatielli. Or is it Scilatielli of Scialatelli? And there's casonsèi. Or is it Casoncelli?

You get my point. And the same applies to grapes. In common with most Old World wine nations including their Euro 2012 opening opponents Spain, every Italian region has its own wine styles. But it goes further than that.

They have their own grapes too. And it's not like France, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate the red wines of Bordeaux, while Chardonnay dominates the white wines of Burgundy.

Italy has 158 pasta varieties. Or 159.
In Italy, that would never do. So while they do have their own take on the great claret blends in their Super Tuscans and also produce the excellent Gaja and Antinori Chardonnays, these varieties are foreign to Italy.

And many Italian varieties are probably foreign to you and I.

We are familiar of course with the great red wine grape Nebbiolo - it has given us two of the greatest of Italian red wines in Barolo and Barberesco.

Sangiovese too is a household - well a wine-drinking-household - name, giving us both Brunello de Montalcino and ever-popular and highly-variable Chianti. What of Corvina? The air-dried raisin at the very heart of Amarone? Primitivo is the grape, possibly originally from Ireland's opening Euro 2012 opponents Croatia, that many people may know only as Zinfandel.

Who has ever heard of Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava or Teroldego? The Italian government has approved more than 350 grape varieties for use in winemaking, and a further 500 are thought to be growing on Italian soil.

These 850-plus grapes are as distinctively regional as Italian football teams, and they demand - and command - the same loyalty from their local fans. Sagrantino is Umbrian. Nero d'Avola is the wine of Sicily. Negroamaro comes from Puglia.

It is the sheer extent of these regional variations that makes this country's red wines some of the most original, intriguing and subtle of the Old World.

Among white wines, nowadays Pinot Grigio is the grape most commonly associated with Italy - but like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay it's a stranger in these parts.

While old-fashioned Italian whites such as Lambrusco may be most familiar - and that familiarity has certainly bred contempt - the likes of Verdicchio, the much scorned Garganega as exemplified in the still improving Soave, Ribolla and Greco di Tufo all deserve the attention of fans from beyond their regional catchment areas, beyond Italian borders.

The shelves of London's Vini Italiani creak under a weight of Italian wine
That is where you will find the joy of Italian wines. Beyond the seas of Chianti and Pinot Grigio that lap at our shores are a whole raft of delicate and deserving regional varietals that reward greater exploration.

But almost whatever the wine, whichever the region and whoever you ask, this is where the one rule comes in, upon which virtually everybody associated with Italian wine can agree:

Wine takes second place on the menu, behind the food. There, I've said it.

Italian reds can be almost crunchy with tannin, deep and powerful on the palate, or robustly flavoursome in style - Negroamaro is sometimes translated as 'black and bitter' - while some whites can come across as highly acidic, nutty, even funky and fusty.

As a result they need accompaniment. Italian wines have historically always been created to be enjoyed alongside food. If an Italian is eating he must be drinking. If an Italian is drinking, she must be eating.

Think of the food you most commonly associate with the country and you may think of pasta, pizza, risotto - meals heavy with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, that need balancing acid or tannin. Rich flavours dominate meals. Sausages, cooked meats like Parma ham and salami, ragu sauces, strong hard cheeses like Grana Padano, Parmigiano; salty Tallegio and Pecorino, or powerful blues like Gorgonzola.

That's the clue to choosing an Italian wine. What are you going to be eating? Because the answer has to be something, rather than nothing.

To paraphrase St. Ambrose, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Commonplace Italian wines like Chianti can be found on the shelves of most UK supermarkets, major chain wine merchants like Majestic or for a greater selection of distinctive Italian wines you might try a merchant like London specialist Vini Italiani.

Pasta image courtesy

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© 2011 John Alexander